U.S. troops have crossed the Karbala Gap, a major gateway towards Baghdad, in what could be the beginning of a long-awaited push on the Iraqi capital.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces seized a key bridge across the Tigris River near the town of Kut, that will enable them to move towards Baghdad from the southeast as well as the southwest.
U.S. forces are accelerating their advance on Baghdad, launching coordinated attacks on two fronts against troops of Iraq's elite Republican Guard defending the approaches to the capital.
The U.S. Army says its troops have swept past Karbala, 80 kilometers from Baghdad, after a night-long bombardment of the strategic city, and clashes with Republican Guard units.
But VOA correspondent Alysha Ryu, with U.S. troops in central Iraq, says Iraqi resistance was surprisingly light.
Ryu said,"I think there has been quite a bit of surprise at how little resistance they have met from these Republican Guard units that were supposed to have been guarding the gateway to Baghdad. They're not quite sure exactly what happened to those Republican Guard divisions, whether they've pulled back towards Baghdad and they're going to regroup within the city itself or whether they actually have been degraded to the point where they were not fighting."
Alysha Ryu says one brigade of U.S. soldiers has surrounded Karbala, while two other brigades have pushed on toward Baghdad. Meanwhile, to the east, U.S. Marines secured a bridge across the Tigris near Kut after fighting with other Republican Guard forces. One report quotes a Marine officer as saying it is the last big bridge his troops need to move on Baghdad.
Group Captain Al Lockwood, of Britain's Royal Air Force, is a spokesman for coalition forces in Qatar. He calls the breakthrough at Karbala and the capture of the bridge near Kut significant.
Captain Lockwood said,"Obviously, strategic crossing points were one of the priorities. We need to get equipment, personnel, across the rivers, and achieving capture of these crossing points is important, and it seems that has been achieved."
The concerted moves on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers south of Baghdad followed a pause in the allied advance on the capital that gave the allies a chance to shore up their long supply lines and bring up more munitions.
Overnight, U.S. warplanes continued to bomb Republican Guard positions around Baghdad, eroding their capability to resist the U.S. onslaught toward the capital. Heavy U.S. bombers pummeled Iraqi positions north of Baghdad while fighter planes and helicopters strafed Iraqi militiamen dug in around the town of Najaf.
There was good news for the Americans on another front as well. Central Command deputy operations director, Brigadier General Vince Brooks, announced early Wednesday that U.S. special forces rescued an American soldier who had been captured by the Iraqis.
General Brooks said,"Coalition forces have conducted a successful rescue mission of a U-S army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq. The soldier has been returned to a coalition-controlled area."
The rescued soldier was later identified as Jessica Lynch, whose unit took a wrong turn near Nasiriyah more than a week ago and was ambushed by Iraqi irregulars. She had been listed as missing in action, not as a prisoner of war. U.S. officials said she was found at a hospital in Nasiriyah.
In Baghdad, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein failed to appear on television Tuesday night for what had been announced as a presidential address. His information minister read a statement instead, calling for a holy war against coalition forces. U.S. officials said the Iraq president's failure to appear himself cast new doubts on his whereabouts and physical condition.